Category: Best Picture


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When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.

When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.

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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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I had intended to post this review earlier today. But, my body is sort of a mess right now. It’s a new school semester, and my body, long accustomed to sleeping in til well after noon, is fighting a hard fight against my intention to wake up every day no later than 10 AM. Case in point, I fell asleep after a full 16 hour day Monday night at around 2 AM but I woke up at 5 AM and was unable to fall back asleep until around 10 AM. I slept til 1:30 PM (when I had to get up for class), got back home at around four and slept til I left for work. My body doesn’t know what to do with itself. I have to be up at 9:30 AM today (so Wednesday morning) but it’s almost 2 and despite taking a sleeping pill, my body doesn’t want to go to sleep. I am, however, hell bent on correcting myself even if that means operating on minimal amounts of sleep on those days that I don’t work. I’ll do that if I have to. This is all meant to say that my blogging may be taking a backseat because of this (also cause of all of the homework I have to do).

It is a sort of weird, almost divine providence that I wound up reviewing Rain Man a little less than two weeks after I reviewed Forrest Gump. On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking they’re two similar films. They both involve a mentally disabled man that possesses astounding gifts who uses said gifts to enrich the lives of those around them. Praise the heavens that the surface is where these two films’ similarities end. Rain Man is, as I will posit, the anti-Forrest Gump. Where the latter deals in trite sentimentality, unearned emotional manipulation, and patently absurd twists of plot (it is the trope codifier for the “magical retard” [sorry for the offensive word]), Rain Man is firmly planted in the real world and though a clear emotional arc is traveled, an autistic savant doesn’t magically solve the problems of everyone around him.

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For those who’ve not seen the truly great bit of 80s filmmaking from director Barry Levinson (Diner), Rain Man is a genuinely moving (if occasionally predictable) spin on one of the most American genres of film, the road movie. A fast-talking, self-centered yuppie, Charlie Babbit (The Color of Money‘s Tom Cruise), finds out that his estranged father has died, and along with his Italian fiancee, Susanna (Valeria Golino), makes the trip from L.A. to Cincinnati for his father’s funeral and the reading of his will. But, Charlie finds out that all his father left him was a classic convertible and prize-winning rose bushes, not the $3 million estate that should have been his birthright. With some minor investigation, Charlie finds out that his father left all of his money to Raymond Babbit (Wag the Dog‘s Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant living in a mental institution that is also the older brother that Charlie never knew he had.

And thus, as a bargaining tool to extort the mental institution’s head caretaker to give Charlie the $3 million that’s been set aside in a trust for Raymond, Charlie decides to kidnap his brother since Raymond’s stay in the hospital is voluntary and no one established an official conservatorship of Raymond after the dead of their father. But, Charlie quickly learns that caring for his brother will be much more work than he bargained for. Raymond is unable to process emotion and information in a way even remotely similar to normal people, and he is a slave to the routines of his life. If he doesn’t eat certain foods at certain times or misses his shows at their scheduled time or doesn’t wear clothes from a specific K-Mart, he starts to snap. Throw in a massive crisis in Charlie’s personal life, and the caretaking of Raymond proves to be an almost insurmountable obstacle. But, as Charlie and Raymond make their way across America, Charlie learns that maybe he can love this brother he never met.

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It almost goes without saying at this point that Dustin Hoffman’s performance in this film is one of the greatest screen performances of all time. Not to belabor my anti-Forrest Gump analogy, but in that film, one would be forgiven for thinking Gump wasn’t really retarded in a traditional sense. He was just slow. I’ve known non-retarded types in real life that are easily dumber than Forrest Gump. You believe for every second that he’s on screen that Hoffman has autism. Hoffman is one of the most famous actors of all time, and despite that, he completely disappears into the role of Raymond. Hoffman’s preparation for the role (he spent a year living with a real life autistic savant) is evident throughout the whole picture. And though Raymond is a very static character (more on that later), Hoffman finds a subtlety and range in his performance that is stunning.

However, despite his Best Actor win at the 1988 Academy Awards, Raymond is not the main character of the film. That’s Charlie, and it’s his arc of emotional growth that defines the film, for better and (slightly) for worse. As I said, Raymond is a static character. Any change he experiences over the course of the film is minor at best. He’s not capable of changing. He doesn’t operate under normal human terms. It’s Charlie’s turn from a greedy, narcissistic yuppie into a compassionate brother that cares more about being allowed to take care of his brother than his $3 million inheritance that makes the film. And unlike the way that Forrest touches everyone’s life, the relationship that forms between Raymond and Charlie is believable and emotionally wrenching. I am incapable of watching this film without crying every single time we make it to the custody hearing at the end of the film.

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It’s too easy to give all of the credit in this film to Dustin Hoffman. His performance is practically iconic at this point. But, let’s not forget that for a brief window in the late 1980s, Tom Cruise was an A-list talent, not just because of his stunning good looks (though that was clearly part of it), but also because of his natural talents as an actor. If you can watch Born on the Fourth of July and question Cruise’s acting creds, you don’t understand good acting. And because Charlie is the main character and because we have to believe his emotional journey of the film, the greatest burden of Rain Man nearly falls on Cruise’s shoulders. And though Charlie isn’t as great a Cruise creation as Ron Kovic, Cruise was expertly cast as the charming but soulless yuppie who is able to find himself in the presence of his brother.

Besides the fact that I don’t think Hoffman should have won Best Actor that year (he should have won Best Supporting Actor), my complaints about Rain Man are minimal at worst. Occasionally, the road trip segments of the film drag or seem repetitive. The business crisis that Charlie must race back to L.A. to thwart is thinly explained at best. And, despite my general love of this film’s emotional arc, occasionally it does seem like some moments are too neatly resolved. Particularly, any scene between Raymond and Charlie’s fiancee cross the line from genuine sentiment to Forrest Gump-style emotional manipulation (though, the movie is just as likely to subvert that later so maybe I shouldn’t actually complain). Whereas many film’s about mental disabilities unfairly play on audience’s emotions and sympathies, Rain Man manages to be painfully realistic yet still deliver a moving emotional through line. What more can you ask for?

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before my review proper begins. This is one of the most beloved films of the 90s and the viciousness with which I’m going to examine this film will probably offend its more hardcore fans. You’ve been warned. Also, though I usually attempt to review films purely on their own standards, Forrest Gump is such a cultural icon that I will have to also look at why that is and why I find that so distressing.)

If you were to ask the average movie-goer to compose a list of their top 10 films of the 90s, I’m probably not assuming too much when I say that Forrest Gump would be one of the films to make an appearance most often (and probably rank the highest on average). It is one of the most popular films, not just of the 1990s, but of the entire modern Hollywood era. The fact that this is true says something unspeakably sad about the tastes of the average movie fan. I’m concerned that I lack the vocabulary and the writing acumen in general to describe the melodramatic drivel that is the beating core of Forrest Gump in powerful enough terms. In my two and a half year tenure running this blog, there are probably less than five films that I can name that even come close to the blatant and cheap emotional manipulation that cranks Forrest Gump‘s gears.

Only the treacly garbage known as The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wear their absurd emotional and plot contrivances as the badges of honor that Forrest Gump so shamelessly employs. Forrest Gump is sappier than a maple tree in New England come syrup season. Sentimentality isn’t a bad thing in films. Movies like Monsieur Ibrahim or Cinema Paradiso are capable of generating real, strong emotions without relying on cheap, unearned histrionics to achieve that emotional payoff. Cheap sentimentality is achieved when writers and directors exploit tragedy and suffering without adding anything new to storytelling conventions that have been abused literally for centuries now or when a film is so patently unrealistic but still set up to evoke a specific set of emotional reactions that it has no right trying to grasp. Forrest Gump commits both sins of sentimentality and it became nearly unwatchable during this particular viewing.

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If, by some miracle you haven’t seen Forrest Gump (hopefully this encourages you to not waste your time watching it), the plot is as simple as it is absolutely fucking absurd. Forrest Gump (Big‘s Tom Hanks) is a sweet and innocent man born in the 1940s in a small town Alabama. But Forrest was born with an IQ of 75 and were it not for his loving mother (Lincoln‘s Sally Field), Forrest wouldn’t have been allowed to attend normal schools. But with the help of his mother who pushes him to not let anyone put him down because of his IQ and the fact that he has to wear leg braces, Forrest learns how to get by. He’s assisted in his childhood by his friend Jenny (played as an adult by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Robin Wright Penn), a troubled girl physically and sexually abused by her father, but it’s when Forrest becomes a teenager that he sets on a world of adventures all his own.

It turns out that once Forrest loses his leg braces, he can run incredibly fast. And he becomes a star collegiate football player and even gets to meet President Kennedy (the first in a string of presidents and celebrities that he’ll meet) as part of the All-American Team. And after he graduates from college, Forrest is drafted to Vietnam where he meets Bubba (Justified‘s Mykelti Williamson), a shrimp-obsessed black man, and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), a death-seeking officer from a long-line of soldiers. Forrest becomes a war hero by saving most of his platoon after a Viet Cong ambush and is even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Forrest becomes a world-class Ping Pong player and is involved in more or less every major historical event from the 1950s up until the 1980s.

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There’s probably, actually a good movie in there somewhere if you were to remove all of the bits where Forrest finds himself involved in literally practically every major historical event of the decade. The idea of a mentally disabled man struggling to find his place in life all while trying to come to terms with his love for a woman that is not mentally ill… there’s a good screenplay hidden in there somewhere. But, at literally (I’m probably going to abuse that word during this review) every opportunity Forrest Gump chooses to forego authenticity in favor of outrageous coincidences and unearned emotion. Every emotional scene is underwritten, over-directed, and pompously scored. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be feeling in a scene (which should be impossible considering the film’s overbearing theatrics), don’t worry; the constantly obvious score will simplify things for you.

And, with a handful of exceptions, the performances are also all too on-the-nose. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for this film, and ignoring for a second that this means both John Travolta and Tim Robbins couldn’t win for their roles in Pulp Fiction and Shawshank, there’s hardly anything great about Hanks’s performance. With the exception of his scene at Jenny’s grave at the end of the film (SPOILER i suppose but I don’t care), he never taps into any genuine emotion in his performance as Forrest. Maybe also when Bubba died. He plays a mentally ill person well, but great acting is synonymous with powerful emotion (even if that power is tapped into in a subtle way like Joaquin Phoenix in The Master), and Hanks’s performance is mostly bland from an emotional perspective throughout. Of course, Forrest is a bland and passive protagonist so that makes sense.

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It should be no surprise then that the only two memorable performances in the film come from the movie’s two best characters. She’s hated by most of the film’s fandom (because she is an actually flawed and broken heroine compared to the perfect but slow Forrest), but Jenny is arguably the most interesting character in the film. Coming from a broken home and making a series of endless bad choices who can only find loves in the arms of a man who may not really understand how love works (despite his famous quote), Robin Wright Penn captured all of the loneliness and desperation that would consume a woman in her shoes. And, of course, Gary Sinise is spectacular as the embittered and cynical Lieutenant Dan who rages against God and Forrest himself for not allowing him to die in the jungles of Vietnam and forcing him to spend the rest of his days as a cripple.

Of course, I can’t make the argument that Forrest Gump isn’t a well-made film from a technical perspective. From the way that Robert Zemeckis seamlessly integrated Tom Hanks into actual classic TV and news footage to the generally beautiful cinematography, Forrest Gump is a competently well-made film. In fact, the skill with which it was made is part of the reason that I suspect so many people are tricked into believing the emotion of the film. Robert Zemeckis is such a skilled director that he utilizes every cinematic trick of the trade to elicit the reactions he wants because the writing of the film sure as hell isn’t strong enough to do the job. And, obviously, the movie has an absolutely killer soundtrack of the best songs of the 60s and 70s once the movie makes its way to Vietnam.

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More than 1300 words is plenty on a film that I distinctly dislike, but because Forrest Gump is so well-loved I had to explain in as clear a language as possible why this film is, from every objective standard I can think of, a total train-wreck.It’s movie trickery that has fooled people into thinking this is some type of profound and grand film. And that’s funny because almost any time the movie espouses some bit of homespun wisdom (usually from Forrest’s mother), it’s contradicted less than ten minutes later. I apologize if you’re a lover of Forrest Gump and this review offends your adoration of this film; I used to like it myself. But, after this particular viewing and as a much more sophisticated movie watcher than I was ten years ago (when I last saw the film), there’s no possible conclusion I could come to than that Forrest Gump cheaply plays with audience’s emotion and uniformly never earns the emotional payoff it so desires.

Final Score: C

 

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Every movie lover has that one film that you can put in a million times, and every time you watch it, you get something new out of it. With our favorite films, repeat viewings become not only a type of security blanket where we can bask in the predicted pleasures of a treasured piece of art, but they increasingly become extended sessions of wonder that one team of filmmakers (from the director on down) were able to get things so perfectly right. They are films that infiltrate every aspect of our lives and we learn and evolve with these experiences so that sometimes, if the film is great enough, something about the film grows to define part of you. I am a lifelong film lover, but 1977’s Annie Hall is my favorite film of all time, and not only is it the crowning jewel of Woody Allen’s career, it’s the most important romantic comedy ever made.

Manhattan may be deeper; Midnight in Paris may be more whimsical; and Crimes and Misdemeanors may be more tragic, but no other film in the Woody Allen canon has transformed cinema to the extent of Annie Hall. Taking the most overdone film genre of all time, the romantic comedy, Annie Hall turned every genre convention on its head. From expectations for a happy ending to the classic manic pixie dream girl archetype to the notions of linear storytelling to a respect for the existence of the fourth wall, Annie Hall obliterated the standards of 1970s storytelling and prior with a rapturous disregard for the way movies were meant to be made. Clearly enthralled with Fellini and Bergman, Woody Allen brought foreign art-house sensibilities into the mainstream.

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Like so much of the best cinema, Annie Hall is an especially autobiographical film. In a vein similar to Chasing Amy (or even Allen’s later Husbands and Wives), Annie Hall is a cinematic portrayal of a crumbling relationship played out by the real life partners in the relationship itself. Neé Annie Hall in real life, Diane Keaton (Love and Death) plays the titular object of Allen’s desire. Diane Keaton was Woody’s greatest muse of the 1970ss, and with Annie Hall, Allen fuses a fantastical and romanticized embellishment of his youth thrown into the tragic downfall of one of the great relationships of his life.

Thus, Annie Hall is the decades spanning tale of the life and loves of Alvy Singer, a purposefully transparent stand-in for Woody Allen. A marginally successful stand-up comedian, Alvy lives in New York. With his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) and two ex-wives, Alvy’s life isn’t exactly a shining example of having your life together. And his world is only complicated when he’s introduced to the ditsy, sensitive, and complex Annie Hall who bounds into Alvy’s life like an electric jolt to the heart. But the gulf in their intellectual ambitions and Alvy’s own cynical, pessimistic outlook on life spell an inevitable doom for their on-again/off-again relationship.

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If you have ever been in a failed relationship, Annie Hall is a sprawling, exquisitely detailed roadmap of everything that could have possibly gone wrong. Even if you’re a 24 year old kid from rural WV who had never even been to NYC until years after watching this film for the first time, Woody’s tale of lost love, regret, and the rush of dawning romance is timeless and universal in its appeal. I remember watching this film for the first time as a sophomore in high school and immediately being overwhelmed by a sympathy with Alvy Singer, and the relatable nature of this story has only gotten more painfully intense as I’ve gotten older and had more experience in the type of tale Woody has crafted.

And, that attention to detail and brutal effectiveness in detailing a relationship on its way up and just as quickly on its way out is what has made Woody Allen one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. It would have been too easy to paint a one-sided portrait of the collapse of his time with Diane Keaton, but instead, Allen showed an honest, subtle look at the dynamics between men and women and the ways that we desire different things in life and how those desires can spell doom for love. Annie has become one of the go to examples of the “manic pixie dream girl” but if you actually watch the film, it’s clear that Annie is meant to deconstruct that typical male fantasy.

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But it isn’t just the effective realism and honest intentions of the film that makes Annie Hall the classic it’s become (though that’s certainly a major part of it). Annie Hall stands head and shoulders above its peer because it was the first major film to successfully incorporate serious themes and an actual emotional message with laugh-out-loud fourth wall shattering humor. Over the course of Annie Hall, Woody Allen doesn’t just lean on the proverbial fourth wall; he takes a chainsaw and demolishes it until you’re not sure if the fourth wall ever existed in the first place.

Having his characters directly address the camera, incorporating not only flashbacks but flashbacks where the present day characters can interact with the people in the past, using animated interludes, devolving into downright fantasy, and using sardonic thought bubbles to explain the actual thoughts of characters during dialogue, Annie Hall isn’t afraid to remind you that you’re watching a movie, and it’s better off for it. Some great films have aped this style since ( (500) Days of Summer an obvious example), but no movie has so successfully married the heartwrenching, the hilarious, and the surreal as well as Annie Hall.

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Diane Keaton won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar at the 1977 Academy Awards for her portrayal of Annie, and the only performance by a woman in a comedy that I can think that is better than her turn in this film was Jennifer Lawrence last year in Silver Linings Playbook. Diane Keaton may have essentially been playing herself, but it was a fierce and now iconic portrayal. What makes Woody such a great writer is that he writes such complex roles for his female leads, and Annie is possibly the best role he’s ever written. Diane Keaton sees Annie through virtually the complete human emotional experience, and she never falters along the  way.

Woody lost that year for Best Actor to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl, and I actually agree with that decision from the Academy. Woody’s turn as Alvy is probably one of the top three performances of his career, but there’s simply no denying that Woody is better behind the camera than in front of it. There are moments here and there where Woody stops acting (even if he’s supposedly conversing with a friend in the film) and just starts performing one of his stand-up routines and the difference in his cadence is too apparent. Still, when the scene calls for it, Woody Allen too hits all the right emotional and dramatic points required for the film.

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I could go on an on about how Annie Hall is a perfect snapshot of life in the 1970s or how brilliant the “It Had to Be You” interludes are or how Allen’s neurotic, nebbish Alvy Singer became the basis of a million rom-com heroes to come, but I think I have probably bored all of you enough with my adoration bordering on worship of this masterful film. I’ve written three unpublished screenplays, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Annie Hall is (with Chasing Amy and Pulp Fiction) the reason I want to be a film-maker. If, in my life, I can write a film that is one-fifth as good as Woody’s opus, I will consider my career a success. I’ll leave you with a quote.

Alvy Singer: [narrating] After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I’m on literally like five or six different types of cold/sinus/allergy medicines at the moment, so if this review is incomprehensible gobbledy-gook, that’s why, and I’ll fix it when I’m not drugged out of my gourd and my sinuses don’t make my face feel like it’s simultaneously melting and being squeezed by a massive vise)

If you were a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, how would you vote in the race for Best Picture? Would you vote for what you simply thought was the finest film of the year based solely on its artistic merits or would you allow for more complicated factors such as mainstream accessibility and cultural significance? I bring this up because for the last five years, I can’t honestly imagine that the Academy voters went with Option A (unless their tastes in movies are just stunningly shallow) and instead went with the option of smart films with mainstream appeal. It’s not that The King’s Speech or The Artist are bad films. They’re very good films, but like 2012’s Best Picture winner, Argo, they were released in a sea of films with far more artistic vision and insightArgo2

With that prior warning, it may come as a shock when I say that Argo is a virtually flawless film. There wasn’t a single moment in the film where I thought to myself, “That was mishandled,” or “They should have done that differently.” However (and I’m about to coin a word here), it was also a totally “awe”-less film. For a movie that is now enshrined as the “Best Picture” of 2012, there was simply not a single exceptional element to the film.  At literally no point in the film (except for maybe Alan Arkin’s performance but more on that later) did I sit up and say, “Wow. That was superb.” From the direction (Ben Affleck’s now infamous Best Director snub was honestly well-deserved) to the cinematography to the characters to the story, everything about the film was very good. Nothing about it was great.

A fairly fictionalized account of real events, Argo is the story of a recently declassified CIA op that occurred during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980. After the Iranian revolution that deposed U.S.-supported Shah Reza Pahlavi and began the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s turn into an Islamic Republic, Iran had a very legitimate beef with the actions of the U.S. government in overthrowing their democratically elected leader prior to Shah Pahlavi. And after months of unrest, protestors stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 American diplomats and members of the foreign service hostage for 444 days. Argo is the story of six Americans who escaped the embassy before they were captured and the efforts of the C.I.A. to extract them from Iran.

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Tony Mendez (Dazed and Confused‘s Ben Affleck) is a C.I.A. exfiltration expert. His job is to get wanted targets out of highly hostile environments without any violence or calls for alarm. When the State Department and C.I.A. are tasked with extricating the six American escapees (who have been staying at the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran), Mendez has to come up with a plan to get them out of the nation alive. So, Mendez decides to have the escapees pretend they’re part of a film crew surveying Iran as a possible location for their new science fiction film, and with the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin), that’s just what Mendez is going to do.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the film is that it’s like eating a box of popcorn. When all is said and done, the film tastes good and it keeps you full as you’re going along, but when the credits roll, you realize it was completely empty and you’re hungry for something of actual substance. I said earlier that the film was flawless although perhaps that was the wrong word. It has a big glaring flaw, but you only really notice upon later reflection once the credits roll. This is a film simply over-flowing with eccentric and interesting characters, but for the life of me, I couldn’t give a shit about a single one of them because the film spent zero time developing them and letting the audience emotionally invest in their troubles.

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Part of me also wants to find fault in the almost comically stoic performance from Ben Affleck as the film’s lead, but upon reflection, I’m going to say that it makes sense and is logical within the context of the performance. Mendez is a hardened C.I.A. spook and his job is navigating high-tense situations. It makes perfect sense that he would be as calm and collected as humanly possible. But, honestly, the only performance from the film that wowed me was another delicious comic turn from Alan Arkin as the foul-mouthed movie producer. If nothing else sticks with me from Argo, the catchphrase “Argo-fuck-yourself” has already become part of everyday vocabulary thanks to Alan Arkin.

I was also bothered by the film’s decision to add unnecessary and totally fictional conflict and complexity to the mission that Tony Mendez was trying to perform. I understand that the film wouldn’t be very interesting if it had stuck strictly to the facts of the “Argo” case, but it could have found depth and tension in other areas rather than a strict portrayal of historical facts with some completely made-up shit thrown in for good measure. The film wants to be taken seriously as a portrayal of the events that occurred (and it does get a lot of points for showing why Iran had a good reason to hate the U.S. at the time), but when it adds fictitious elements like the near shoot-out at the airport in the film’s climax, the movie loses some of its credibility.

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And Argo committed one of the most disappointing movie crimes of all (at least for me). Other than the often hilarious and refreshingly comic moments that lampooned the sillier sides of Hollywood, the film seemed to never generate an emotional response from me other than a vague sense of pleasure from the admittedly very clever and daring mission it portrays. I didn’t care about the characters. Their actions never make me feel sympathy or distaste. And, as mentioned before, their characterizations (even that of Tony Mendez) were crudely thin.

So, it’s becoming clear that my earlier statement that Argo was flawless is coming apart at the seams while I’ve yet to find much positive to say about this film. So, let me close out with this addendum to the torrent of issues I took with this Best Picture winner. I honestly enjoyed this film, and I thought it was a very good, mainstream crowd-pleasing thriller. It is the fact that it was named the Best Picture of last year that I feel the need to examine it with such intensity. As a political thriller and a loose retelling of historical facts, Argo is a success. But if you call this the most artistically significant film of last year, well, “Argo-Fuck-Yourself.”

Final Score: B+

 

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Not since my review of No Country for Old Men early in this blog’s existence have I reviewed a film that I have such complicated feelings toward. Much like that particular Coen brothers film, The Departed was the movie where Hollywood royalty (in this case Martin Scorsese) finally took home the big prize. Yet, just like No Country for Old Men, there is a sizable portion of that director’s fan-base who feel Scorsese was rewarded for the wrong film. I consider myself to be a bit of a Scorsese buff, and I can name around five of his films that I think are better than The Departed and quite a few films from 2006 that were more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar (Pan’s Labyrinth, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Children just to name a few). That’s not to say this isn’t a good movie. It is, in fact, a great film (that far exceeds it’s source material, Infernal Affairs). It just has enough flaws to keep it from reaching the top-tier of Scorsese classics.

You do have to give The Departed and Martin Scorsese (as well as screenwriter William Monahan) credit for something though. The Departed (alongside Peter Jackson’s re-imagination of King Kong) has become the standard by which any future remake has to be judged. Current readers will know I reviewed Infernal Affairs last week, and I found it to be an all-style/no-substance affair. That was actually my primary complaint about The Departed for years although upon more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the subtext the film contained. And despite The Departed‘s occasional slightness, it expands and broadens every aspect of Infernal Affairs. Characters that were broad generalizations are given life and depth, and with the exception of Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, Boston has rarely felt this alive in cinema.

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With many added characters and a geographical facelift, The Departed is a very Irish-American take (coming from the ultimate Italian-American film-maker, Martin Scorsese) on the Hong Kong action of Infernal Affairs. Irish mafia king-pin Frank Costello (Chinatown‘s Jack Nicholson) runs the Boston underworld, and it puts him right in the sights of Massachussetts State Police Captain Queenan (Catch-22‘s Martin Sheen). Queenan runs the Undercover Department of the Special Investigation’s Unit, and along with his assistant Dignam (The Fighter‘s Mark Wahlberg), he hires Billy Costigan (Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), a State Police cadet, to go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s organization. At the same time, Costello has Colin Sullivan (Margaret‘s Matt Damon) joining the Massachusetts State Police where he quickly climbs the ranks and becomes Costello’s mole in the police. And it’s not long before both Costigan and Sullivan have to hunt each other.

Where The Departed really sets itself apart from Infernal Affairs (besides the better cast, better direction, better editing, etc) is that beneath the cat-and-mouse game at the heart of the film and the violent crime action is a tale about identity, redemption, family, and being something more than fate decides you should be. The obvious theme to discuss is identity and how men and women who go undercover as cops often risk becoming the very people they’re trying to hunt. That was all of Donnie Brasco, and The Departed makes it so much more compelling. Maybe it’s cause DiCaprio handles the terrain better than Johnny Depp (more on DiCaprio shortly), but the dramatic thrust of the schizophrenic state Billy Costigan always had to place himself in was what kept the tightly wound crime thriller glued together.

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To me, any discussion though of the film’s merits have to begin and end with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fearless performance as Billy Costigan. He got his Oscar nomination that year for Blood Diamond, but it should have been for this film, and honestly, he was just as good as Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. This was a career-defining performance from Leo, and much like Robert De Niro before him, this was the film that cemented him as Scorsese’s new acting muse. Billy Costigan demands that Leo can reach every spot on the emotional continuum and often flip between them instantly. And not only does Leo do this, he nearly sets a new bar for masculine vulnerability. There is an emotional nakedness that Leo taps into for some of the most important scenes of the film, and it is rare to see a male actor display so much of his soul in a performance.

The rest of the cast was wonderful as well, and it’s honestly impossible to pick favorites. It’s kind of ridiculous that Mark Wahlberg got an Oscar nomination when Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin didn’t (as they both gave more interesting performances) though Marky Mark did do a good job in his spot. This was not one of the definitive performances of Matt Damon’s career, but he channeled the smugness and confidence that someone like Colin Sullivan would need to reach the top. Martin Sheen shined as the paternal Captain Queenan (even though he couldn’t always keep up the Boston accent). Some have accused Jack Nicholson’s performance of being too hammy, but I’m pretty sure it was intentional, and it added to the flamboyancy of the Costello character. And as the shared love interest of both Costigan and Sullivan, Vera Farmiga brings her own vulnerable sexuality to the equation as a psychiatrist.

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And, in classic Scorsese style, The Departed is a technical movie fan’s dream. There are issues I take with the direction (more on that later), but mostly, Scorsese proves again and again why he will be forever remembered as one of the most important figures in American cinema. Whether it’s the lighting, the quick cross-cutting, the not-so-subtle religious iconography, or the graphic, stylized violence, The Departed feels like a Scorsese film through and through, and after the decade spent the better part of the decade exploring more serious affairs like The Aviator and Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s return to his organized crime roots was certainly a breath of fresh air to his legions of fans. The Departed runs two and a half hours long, which is about thirty minutes too long for this story, but it took Scorsese’s steady hand to make that length bearable and consistently fun.

However, that doesn’t erase the fact that the film is too long. And while the pacing remains generally propulsive, there are moments where it lags, and I don’t just mean that it slows down to focus on characters. That’s fine. But many of the moments where the film tries to develop the Colin Sullivan character feel less well-realized than the other moments in the film, and unlike Infernal Affairs (where the dirty cop was just as interesting, if not more interesting than the undercover cop), Sullivan just never reaches the dramatic heights that Costigan finds. The sections where the film alludes to his sexual dysfunctions are especially poorly done and just don’t hit with me. Also, Infernal Affairs has a better ending than The Departed. I don’t want to ruin either film’s ending, but if you’ve seen both, I’m not sure if it’s possible to feel that Scorsese’s ending didn’t dilute the powerful nature of the other film’s climax.

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I’ll draw this to a close (this particular review keeps reminding me that I should start taking notes as I watch movies I plan on reviewing like I did in the past) and leave with these parting thoughts. The Departed is a great film and one of the definitive crime epics of the 2000s. Sadly, the competition in that particular category wasn’t as fierce as it was in the 90s and 70s. And Martin Scorsese is such a storied director with such a sizable library of classic films (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, etc) that The Departed ranks somewhere alongside Hugo in a list of his great films that just aren’t as legendary as his definitive works. Still, for fans of Scorsese and fans of crime movies in general, The Departed is about as can’t miss as they come.

Final Score: A-

TheGodfatherPartII-1

We’re going to start out with a quick discussion of Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari grading protocol before this review because it bears on my opinion of this film and how it strays slightly from my usual behavior. The Godfather: Part II marks my 317th movie review for this blog. Out of those 317 films, 16 films will have received the illusive score of “A+” (The Godfather: Part II is about to become movie #16 in that list). Generally, the films that receive this score either leave my intellectually breathless (Synecdoche, New York, 8 1/2, Persona) or they leave me emotionally devastated (The Tree of Life, Winter’s Bone, Glengarry Glen Ross). Occasionally though, films will come along that just such perfect, flawless, and thrilling demonstrations of masterful cinematic technique that there is no other score you could possibly hope to give them. Chinatown or Ran are clear examples. The Godfather: Part II is one of the most technically superb films ever made and one of the true masterpieces of the 1970s (and all of American cinema) and simply superior to its predecessor.

Expanding on every theme of The Godfather: Part I while upping the ante in the tragedy department tenfold as well as shoveling more dramatic irony than one would think humanly possible into a film (though at three and a half hours, I guess you have plenty of time to put as much in there as you want), I think it might be fair to say that The Godfather: Part II could be the greatest American epic of all time. Throw in the fact that these films (particularly this entry) are much lighter on actual violence than people seem to remember and that becomes all the more impressive. Yet, in all of American cinema, the exploration of the destruction of one man’s soul, integrity, basic human decency, whatever you want to call that last shred of “goodness” in our hearts, has never been put on more fuller display than in The Godfather: Part II.

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Set a few years after the end of the original film, Part II finds the Corleone family migrated to Nevada where Michael’s (Al Pacino) plans to get an early foothold in the Las Vegas casino business have borne marvelous fruit. Alongside strong-arming a U.S. Senator who wants to squeeze the Corleones for a gaming license, Michael’s life is complicated by the arrival of Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), a Corleone family capo who is feuding with the New York based Rosato brothers. The problem is that the Rosato’s are allied with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and Johnny Ola (The Sopranos Dominic Chianese), Miami gangsters who are involved in a lucrative business deal in Cuba with Michael. When a botched assassination attempt on Michael in his own well-guarded compound awakens Michael’s vengeful side, Michael will stop at nothing to get revenge on those who could have harmed his family even if it ultimately means he destroys his family in the process.

Alongside the story presented in the late 1950s about Michael’s attempts to root out the rat in his family and protect his interests at all costs, the film also flashes back to the turn of the 20th century where you see the humble origins of Michael’s father Vito (Wag the Dog‘s Robert De Niro) from an exiled Sicilian boy to one of the most powerful gangsters in America. Born Vito Andolini, Vito has to flee his hometown of Corleone where a local mafia Don has a price on his head. He takes a boat to America (where he takes the name of his hometown) and after a run in with a local racketeer heavy, Fanucci, Vito quickly amasses power and respect in his community. In fact, there’s almost a victorious, triumphant feeling to the tale of Vito (although with the ultimate price his criminal activities cost his family weighing over every second) but I’ll have more to say about that important bit of ironic dichotomy later.

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As stated before, The Godfather: Part II (particularly when taken in conjunction with the first film) is a classical tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. Michael Corleone is a tragic hero to rival Hamlet or Macbeth. Here is a man who over the course of these two films starts out with at least somewhat noble intentions (and ultimately this film answers my concerns about the flimsiness of Michael’s transformation in the first film). He wants to protect his family. He wants to avenge the attempted murder of his father. He wants to provide for his screw-up siblings. But, by being so excellent at the business he was born into (but didn’t want anything to do with), Michael ultimately tears his family apart (and spoiler alert), he even orders the cold-blooded murder of one of his own siblings because the sibling betrayed him. He loses his wife Kay (Manhattan‘s Diane Keaton) and everyone is terrified of him. Yet, Michael rarely acts out of a place of pure selfishness (though he certainly ceased to be a good guy a long time ago) and he always thinks he’s doing the right thing, and it’s what makes Michael one of the greatest characters in movie history.

And compare that to the path Vito travels over the course of two films. Michael ultimately proves to be more effective as the head of the family. He makes the Corleones more wealthy than Vito could have ever imagined. But Vito achieved a modest success without alienating and ruining his family. The only casualty that Vito’s family ever suffers (besides his own near death at the hands of Solazzo in the first film) is Sonny (James Caan) but that was also about half Sonny’s fault. Yet, his sons (and daughter Connie [Rocky‘s Talia Shire]) wind up so disconnected from each other as a family that an avalanche of tragedy faces the family once Vito finally dies of a heart attack. Vito doesn’t have the same ice in his vein as his son that Michael thinks he needs to keep the family safe, but ultimately Vito proved to be a more moral man (in his own odd way) than his son transformed himself into being.

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It’s hard for me to name a way in which this film isn’t vastly superior to The Godfather: Part I, but let’s start with the performances. Al Pacino’s Michael in this film is not just the best performance of Pacino’s career (managing to even eclipse Glengarry Glen Ross for me) but arguably one of the most important of all time. This film was only made two years after the first film, but Pacino makes Michael seem decades older and more world-weary. Part of it is the excellent make-up he wears (you see what he usually looks like in the flashback that closes out the film), but you see just how dead inside Michael becomes over the course of the film. It’s one of those performances that can’t really be appreciated without seeing the other film, but Pacino is so great at losing himself in Michael’s emotional turmoil and decay, but he still finds the right moments to explode when he needs to, like when he discovers that Fredo (Jon Cazale) has betrayed him or that Kay has had an abortion.

De Niro so totally nails the mannerisms and vocal affectations of Brando’s Vito that it’s one of the all-time great cinematic impersonations although you also just have to savor the chance to see De Niro when he was so young and untested really exploring the palette of emotions and styles that would go on to define his legendary career. But like Joseph Gordon-Levitt simply became Bruce Willis in Looper, De Niro becomes Brando and it’s a sight to behold. Other stand-out performances from the film include Jon Cazale’s timid and naive Fredo, Diane Keaton’s abandoned Kay, Lee Strasburg’s scheming Hyman Roth, and, of course, the drunken and put-upon Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli.

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There’s a moment late in the film that to me sums up not just the story strengths of the film or the acting strengths (though it contains some of the best moments of both) but just the attention to visual detail and the exceptionally strong direction that Francis Ford Coppola lends to the crown jewel in his career as one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. Michael has brought Fredo back to his estate after discovering in Cuba (after a drunken Fredo lets slip that he knows Johnny Ola) that Fredo was the one to betray him. Although he initially wanted to forgive Fredo, Fredo’s unwillingness to take responsibility for what he did (by trying to blame Michael for treating him like a child) has finally pushed Michael over the deep edge. Michael essentially tells Fredo that he is now nothing to him. And it is so cold, that ice literally comes out of Michael’s mouth as he’s giving this speech. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for how cold and uncaring he’s becoming and it’s one of the defining moments of the film and Coppola’s career.

I could write 2000 more words about everything I love about this film, but I’d like to actually watch a movie today (or maybe get started on my third screenplay so I can rack up a hat trick of unpublished works) so I’ll draw this to a close before this becomes an academic essay on the cinematic import of this film. The Godfather: Part II won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1974 Academy Awards. It shouldn’t have. Chinatown and Roman Polanski should have, but if any film was going to beat Chinatown, I’m okay if it’s this one. Whereas the first film falters under the weights of its own ambitions, The Godfather: Part II not only meets those high standards, it exceeds them in every way. That a film that is three and a half hours long was able to carry my attention for every second of its running time should speak volumes to why this is one of the greatest films ever made.

Final Score: A+

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It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a film that is almost without fail always counted among the top ten films ever made. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever reviewed a film this universally acclaimed. 8 1/2 is probably the closest contender if we throw foreign films into the mix. Chinatown is probably pretty high up there but only among more serious movie types (although you could say the same thing about 8 1/2). I just looked at the list of every single movie I’ve reviewed for this blog (I keep one along with the scores I gave them for my own clerical purposes), and absolutely no film I’ve reviewed is as much of a cultural touchstone as 1972’s Francis Ford Coppola opus, The Godfather. It’s the #2 highest ranked film on IMBD.com (narrowly behind The Shawshank Redemption). It is one of the most celebrated and beloved films ever made. It’s influence is immeasurable. But, it’s not quite perfect.

Thankfully, it is about as close to perfect as you could wish while still recognizing the film has one troubling flaw which distracted me for the film’s entire second half. Perhaps, it’s because the film is so well-loved and so highly considered that I was extra attentive to any flaws that I could find in the film. I’d like to believe I wasn’t going out of my way to look for things that I disliked in this movie, but there’s always a chance that I was doing it subconsciously. But I had so much trouble believing a fundamental transformation of the film that I was drawn out of the technical wizardry that Francis Ford Coppola (and cinematographer Gordon Willis) were using to wow me. Perhaps, I’m ill-suited to analyze the motivations and competing urges that seemed week and artificial to me, but the spiritual downfall of Michael Corleone still seems poorly developed.

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A generations-sprawling epic (particularly when the later two films are taken into consideration), The Godfather is ultimately the tale of the Corleone crime family. Starting on the day of his daughter’s (Rocky‘s Talia Shire) wedding in the mid 1940s, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is presented as the head of his powerful crime family. With the help of his sons, the hot-tempered Sonny (James Caan), the incompetent Fredo (John Cazale), and the adopted Tommy (Robert Duvall), Vito runs gambling and prostitution circuits in the New York area. Vito’s son Michael (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino) is a war hero that wants nothing to do with the family business, but when a rival family nearly murders his father, Michael takes it upon himself to run the Corleone family even if it means losing his soul in the process.

At nearly three hours long, The Godfather is a multi-layered, complex epic in every sense of the word so I fear to spoil too much about the plot. Although at the same time, this movie is 40 years old now. It’s not like there’s anybody reading this blog who is still yet to see this movie. Or at least I hope not. What I was trying to get at before though is that there is a sweeping grandeur to the film which is based off of Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name (Puzo also helped to write the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola). The film falters on occasion but you can’t fault it’s ambition. The Godfather is as much about the price of family and how familial loyalty can undo us as it is a detailed look at the mafiosi in the 1940s. The attention to rich characterization and a bird’s eye view of the most intimate secrets of this family is what made The Godfather such a revelation upon its release.

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Much like Glengarry Glen Ross, this is truly an actors’ film. The ensemble casting is pretty superb (if not quite as seamlessly fluid as Glengarry) and it ranks among the best-cast films in cinema history. Brando won the Best Actor Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards (though he declined it because of how Hollywood was treating Native Americans… long fucking story), and while I don’t actually consider Vito to the be the male lead of the film (that’s clearly Michael), it’s still a stunning performance. And it was probably Brando’s last great role. This was one of Pacino’s first big roles, and it was obviously what catapulted him to become the film legend he is today. And this is pre-crazy Pacino. It is a wonderful, restrained, subtle performance that helps makes Michael’s self-destruction far more believable than the script which rushes it despite the movie already being three hours long. The film didn’t nab three Best Supporting Actor nominations for nothing.

It’s also an incredibly directed and indelibly shot film. The film was shot by the “Prince of Darkness” himself, Gordon Willis. He earned the nickname because of how he flaunted the then conventional rules of how much light needed to be in any given scene. But it’s the same dark, moody atmosphere and half-lit room and deals that makes so much of The Godfather‘s visual appeal. This is a film where the mood of any given shot or scene is nearly as important as the actual on-screen dialogue and action. In fact, The Godfather is full to the brim of semi-lengthy sequences without dialogue (or without pertinent dialogue) and Coppola and Gordon Willis are able to evoke so much emotion just from the visual composition of a shot.

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And as far as direction goes, is there a better example of cross-cutting in the history of the medium than the famous baptism scene? Michael has finally taken over as the head of the Corleone family and intercut with images of the baptism of his sister’s newly born child, we see Michael’s associates brutally eliminating in one fell swoop anyone who had the temerity to cross or betray Michael’s family. That mixture of the sacred and profane is one of many things that made Coppola such an accomplished director. That moment has become a bit of American iconography. So much so that when it’s played with in The Godfather: Part III, you’re reminded why that film is so f***ing awful compared to the first two entries.

My only significant complaint about The Godfather (which is why I’ve ultimately always considered The Godfather: Part II to be a better film) is sadly, as I’ve said, tied straight to the major character arc that Michael undergoes. His steady transformation from the good-natured, straight and narrow son who doesn’t want to be involved in his family’s criminal underside into a ruthless and merciless crime boss is a shift that I just can’t buy. Much like Anakin becoming Darth Vader in Star Wars, the leap here seems hard to grasp. Although the film plays it out as Michael’s steady descent into hell because he’s trying to protect his family, Michael seemed so pure at the film’s beginning that the movie doesn’t do enough justice showing him being torn about the terrible things he does. He simply does them and there seems to be no psychological afterthoughts as to the terrible things he proceeds to commit.

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If the rest of the film weren’t so masterfully constructed, acted, and conceived, that flaw would be much more detrimental. Thankfully then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a masterpiece in virtually every other respect and it remains an important hallmark of American cinema. My inability to connect with the transformation of Michael Corleone ultimately keeps this film from perfection (and therefore from receiving my illusive top score of an “A+”), but it takes a special kind of movie to keep me engaged for three hours and The Godfather never loses the audience’s focus for a second. I ultimately don’t consider this film to be in my Top 10 Greatest Films of all time, but if you even have a passing interest in movies, The Godfather is simply one you can’t miss.

Final Score: A

 

(Quick aside before the real review. I watched this Sunday evening I believe although it might have actually been Saturday. School started this week. It’s my final year at WVU. Which I can’t even freaking believe. Of course, I’m a 6th year senior so it’s not my first “last” year. Anyways, I watched this a while ago so forgive me if my details are spotty)

It is impossible to take on films deemed as classics with the same level of objectivity you can use for lesser known works. You compare them to the films from the same era that got less attention (even if, maybe, they deserved more). You (subconsciously or totally aware) place the film within a context of sophistication that you’ve come to expect from modern cinema. Simple things like hype or hearing everyone talk about how great a film can often create expectations that are impossible to live up to. In the past on this blog, I’ve referred to that last phenomena as the Juno effect. 1976’s Rocky is the original sports underdog story. And while it can’t be blamed for creating all of the staid sports cliches that clog our cinemas every year, time hasn’t done Sylvester Stallone’s debut any favors. If you’re looking for an easy to enjoy film, Rocky is it, but greatness isn’t a word that shouldn’t be used in conjunction with this Best Picture winner.

As arguably the most famous sports film ever made, Rocky‘s story is known by virtually all and has inspired a legion of imitators. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a sad-sack bum, a nobody boxer who pays the rent by busting heads for a local loan shark. With a crush on his best friend’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), Rocky is barely floating through life. He’s even been kicked out of his locker at the local boxing gym by the owner/trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith). Rocky gets the chance of a lifetime however when world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decides to give a local Philadelphia unknown boxer a shot at the title after his original opponent gets injured. When Creed chooses Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa, Rocky has to train for his one shot to make it and to prove to everyone that he’s not a worthless bum.

Sylvester Stallone is not an actor. He might be one of the biggest action stars in the history of Hollywood, but he is not an actor. One can applaud him for writing the script himself for Rocky (and fighting with the studios for years to get it made), but his acting rates somewhere between Corey’s little brother in the finale of Boy Meets World and Sofia Coppola in The Godfather: Part III. That is to say, his performance is an utter trainwreck. Rocky is supposed to be a bit of a meathead, and Sly is himself obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed, but Sylvester Stallone displayed absolutely no emotional range in his performance and it often felt like he was reading his lines from a cue card out of the shot considering how nonchalantly he delivered otherwise critical lines. Talia Shire was nearly as unimpressive as the completely one-dimensional Adrian.

Burgess Meredith and Burt Young stole every scene they were in thankfully. Burgess Meredith was 69 when the film was made, but he had more life and vitality than the film’s actual youthful stars. When he tells Rocky he’s going to “eat lightning and crap thunder,” you believed him. When he called Rocky out for wasting his career as a legbreaker, you felt Rocky’s shame, and when he eats his word to approach Rocky about being his manager for the Apollo Creed fight, you could sense his own regret about his own career. Burt Young was also great as Adrian’s putz of a brother, Paulie. While Rocky is a loser who pulls himself out of the gutter, Paulie is even more pathetic than Rocky, and we see him slowly implode over the course of the film. When he finally spews his rage and despair on Adrian and Rocky, Young truly taps into something heartbreaking and pathetic in Paulie’s character.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler nearly 40 years after the film’s release to say that Rocky loses the fight at the end of the film. When that’s the only unexpected thing to happen in the film (although the fact that he gets the holy hell knocked out of him the entire fight means it’s not really that shocking where the decision goes), the movie will often feel a little cliche. The film runs for roughly two hours, and I applaud it’s decision to devote the first 3/4 of the film to trying to develop Rocky and the environment that spawned him, the movie didn’t do that very well. Why is Rocky such a bum? Why does he have such a terrible opinion of himself? He’s obviously a talented boxer. Where did he go wrong? The film tries to explore his self-esteem issues (as well as those of Adrian’s) but the film instead offers shallow portraits instead of insightful examinations.

The boxing match at the end of the film is certainly one of the most engaging sports scenes in cinema history. If the rest of the film felt too tame or too safe, the climactic fight between Rocky and Apollo is brutal. You get a great look at the hell these men put themselves through because of their own pride and their desire to put on a great show for the crowd. All in all, I enjoy Rocky. It’s a fun movie, but it’s inclusion in the canon of great American cinema is completely unfounded. The fact that this film beat Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men for Best Picture is one of the biggest crimes in the history of the Academy Awards. But que sera, sera. If you come into the film just expecting an easy to enjoy underdog story, you’ll get what you want. Anything else, and you’re setting the bar too high for a film scripted by Sylvester Stallone.

Final Score: B